A gay man hopes the story of his crystal meth addiction will help save those still in the closet about their own drug problems.
He smiles as he says this. Since he admitted to his own humiliation, the world treats him more gently. And now that he no longer seeks a drug-induced high, bliss sometimes just comes to him.
Dagenhart recently read a passage in the New Testament about a demon-possessed boy. The boy's parents brought him before Jesus. Jesus cast the demon out. Sometimes emotion sits unexpressed for so long that it builds upon itself like layers of sediment, until only an earthquake can move it. When Dagenhart read this passage, he started to cry. "I hadn't cried in 10 years," he says. "The drug just saps your emotions."
On that night his tears flowed freely. He fled his apartment to breathe fresh air. But in the street he heard a voice. Voices spoke to him when he took crystal too. They told him he was worthless, that he'd been weighed, measured and found wanting. They also told him he was attractive-that everyone wanted him. But this voice was different. It asked him a question: "Have you ever bought yourself flowers?"
"No," he replied.
"Go buy yourself flowers," the voice said. "To show you love yourself."
So Dagenhart bought flowers. He knew how crazy an idea this was, but he figured the voice he was hearing was the voice of God. Not the God who preaches, but a practical, loving God. This practical God next told Dagenhart to go buy a sex toy. "You are going to be spending some time alone," this voice said. "Because you are not going to be hitting the bathhouse like you used to, go buy a sex toy."
Dagenhart made the purchase, then walked by a coffee shop, Crimson Moon at 20th and Sansom streets. As he passed the front door he felt his energy level rise. But the rush waned as he walked away. So he walked back.
He did this a couple times. Each time he stood in front of the door he felt ... high. Finally, he opened the door and a wash of calypso music bled right into his pores. He stood there and took in this feeling, scanning the room until his eyes fell upon a well-dressed black man. He looked positively regal, with his legs crossed, holding a walking stick and wearing a fantastic broad-brimmed black hat.
Some may read this story, a tale about a recovering addict who wound up having conversations with God, and decide that this was some kind of delusion or flashback. When Dagenhart was on crystal his mind raced on a tidal wave of amphetamine and endorphins. He remained aware of his surroundings, but they moved too fast for him to appreciate-like scenery passing outside a high-speed train. The rush he felt was synthetic and temporary, its positive effects fading until he could score again.
But when he stood inside this coffee shop, staring at this beautiful man and listening to this music, he felt the presence of the divine. The moment was real.
"Thank you," he told the man.
In return the man nodded once, solemnly, then stood up and walked out the door. It was as if he'd been waiting for Dagenhart to thank him. Now he could go.
"I feel liberated," says Dagenhart now. "My whole life I was so caught up in trying to be somebody. It was all about material things-sex, drugs, possessions. There were so many people I didn't actually respect. But what they thought meant everything to me. I was pathetic. But I needed to get through all those things to be where I am now. And I love where I am now. After all this time, I feel free."
Dagenhart still has his concerns. He declared bankruptcy during his recovery. There are old debts to pay and a business to build. Of course he also still has HIV, and just remembering to take his pills every day is a chore.
He's also still repairing old relationships, which is why he worried a bit about whether his family would approve of the Jay Dagenhart they met through his Christmas card.
It's true, one of his aunts did call his mother and say, "Did he have to write about the bathhouse?" But when he traveled to Richmond for the holidays, his relatives approached him with a new tenderness and love. His uncles, some of them policemen, walked up and shook his hand.
"They'd pump my hand and look right into my eyes," says Dagenhart, remembering. "And it was the way they looked at me that told me everything I needed to know."
He'd admitted who he was and what he'd been through-and in turn he got respect. It was a wonderful lesson for Dagenhart, who feels vindicated in his desire to share his story.
"I think it was an appropriate Christmas card from me," he says. "Because I didn't find God, I didn't find the spirit by being given anything. I found it by losing it all. I found it by suffering. Once all of the material shit was taken away, I found out who I really am. And it's a gift."
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4